Arts

After 600+ 'Blind Dates' onstage, here's what you learn

The premise is as simple as swiping right, but how do you connect with a total stranger (on a stage!) every night?

The premise is as simple as swiping right, but how do you connect with a total stranger every night?

In Blind Date, Mimi (here played by Tess Degenstein) selects a date from the audience. What follows is 90 minutes of conversation that's more heartfelt and charming than your average Tinder match. (Facebook/Blind Date On Stage)

How do you make a connection with a total stranger — every night of the week? Such is the tragedy of the serial Tinder user, but also the dilemma of staging Blind Date. It's a popular piece of "spontaneous theatre," one that's played New York, London and various cities right across Canada since improv actor Rebecca Northan invented the concept at Toronto's World Stage Festival in 2009. The premise is as simple as swiping right: our heroine, Mimi, is in need of a date, so she plucks one from the audience. It's cool, guys. These unsuspecting theatre stars always consent pre-show — as do their partners, if they've brought them. From there, Mimi and her faux-beau spend the next 90 minutes onstage, getting to know each other. It's a situation as potentially charming and adrenaline-jacked as an actual first date — more compelling than a mere interview, and certainly more heartfelt.

"Blind Date is not a show about dating. That's just the packaging," Northan tells CBC Arts. The show runs at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre to June 25, where three actors — Christy Bruce, Tess Degenstein and Northan herself — will be on the prowl as Mimi.

Everyone has a beautiful story to tell, and everyone is lovable.- Tess Degenstein, actress ( Blind Date )

"It's just about, 'How do people connect?'" adds Degenstein. "The company has such a big belief — and we've seen it over and over and over —  that everyone has a beautiful story to tell, and everyone is lovable." Mimi dates men of all ages and backgrounds, as you can see from the show's ongoing dating diary on Facebook. "To showcase how amazing these people are that come up onstage. I feel like I've succeeded when the audience falls in love with them a little bit!" says Bruce.

So how do they do it? With a hell of a lot of energy, and top notch improv skills, for one. But after more than 600 "first dates," you learn a few things. No guarantee these lessons will revive your love life, but here, the cast of Blind Date reveals how they make a night to remember.

Christy Bruce as Mimi in Blind Date. (Tarragon Theatre)

How many "Blind Dates" have you been on?

Rebecca Northan: Personally — zero. Professionally — as a company, we've done over 600 "Blind Dates." That's split up amongst all of the seven of us who have played the "lead clown," with me likely doing around 350 of those.

Christy Bruce: Oh wow, I've done over 150 performances as Mimi. Zero actual blind dates!

Tess Degenstein: I've probably done 18 over seven months, so I'm the newest Mimi.

In real-life terms, what's your idea of a great first date?

CB: Connection, open communication, a lot of laughter.

RN: A bubble of time, spent with another person, where safety and true connection happens. Ideas are shared, there's a bit of vulnerability and you come to know each other better.

TD: It's so funny — I may be the wrong person to ask. I might have been on three dates in my whole life, and none of them went anywhere (laughs). Otherwise, all of my partners, we were friends forever. [...] But I can definitely talk about being able to connect with someone onstage, which I think is the ideal case for us in the show, that you and that other person actually connect and have a nice time together.

Yeah! How does your idea of a great first date compare to the dynamic you create every night onstage?

RN: We aim to create that exact same dynamic.

CB: That is my goal every show: to make the date as comfortable as possible so that all those things can come out.

Rebecca Northan is the creator and star of Blind Date. The show returns to Toronto's Tarragon Theatre to June 25. (Michael Meehan/Tarragon Theatre)

From doing the show, what are the biggest lessons you've learned about, well, making that happen? How do you make a connection with someone in 90 minutes?

RN: I can tell you that having a successful interaction with any other human means respect, listening and sharing. Breathing is important. Eye contact. Staying playful. Being more yourself than living up to any "idea" of what might seem impressive. People being themselves is wonderful.

TD: What I'm slowly realizing is the more I honestly share of myself, the more that it opens the other person up to do the same. And then suddenly it's like, "Oh! We're meeting each other." It's not trivia or small talk — it's about, "Here's who I am."

CB: To be others-focused (a great improv skill), to ask probing, open-ended questions. Really, it's just about being curious! I also go into it with a very open heart...which can be scary at times but so worth it.

TD: For the people we're bringing up onstage, it's a very scary thing to do in front of a bunch of people, so it's our goal to make them feel comfortable, and to sometimes open ourselves up and be honest first, so that hopefully they feel empowered to do the same.

How do you do that? What do you share?

TD: I think it can be anything. Instead of asking, "What's your job?" it's, "How do you feel about your job?" [...] Just asking questions that are about more than the facts. It's about, "Here's how I feel inside."

RN: If someone is willing to be in the show, and are at the same time clearly jittery when they arrive on the stage, then we (the cast) take very good care of them. We offer them water; the lights are up bright so they can't see the audience; I take a genuine interest in who they are and what they have to say.

Tess Degenstein as Mimi in Blind Date. (Tarragon Theatre)

CB: My very first show, I remember thinking, "What am I doing?" I was so scared. Then I sat across from my "date" and looked into his eyes and saw that he had just as much —  if not more — fear in his eyes. I learned fast that I needed to let go of my fear and take care of him.

RN: It's the job of the whole team to say yes to whatever the "date" is offering. If they feel like talking, we listen. If they're shy, we offer more, and ask gentle questions. It's really all the same stuff that any kind human does for another.

TD: "Yes, I hear you," "Yes, I am here with you," Yes, you're doing great," "Yes, this is a nervewracking situation!" Really, the "yes and" fundamental principal of improv coupled with listening is what I feel the show is all about."

RN: It's a show that highlights a particular person for a moment in time and says, "Look at this person —  aren't they remarkable?!"

(These interviews have been edited and condensed.)

Blind Date. Featuring Rebecca Northan, Christy Bruce and Tess Degenstein. To June 25 at Tarragon Theatre, Toronto. www.tarragontheatre.com

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